Friday, March 23, 2018

One Year at the Comicbook Store

During my tenure at Sequart Organization I authored a misguided piece that, while genuinely motivated, brought up the hardships of traditional publishing industries currently, suggesting that comics would eventually befall the same fate. I suggested that Amazon would slowly price out and out-distribute local comic shops (specifically trade paperbacks and hardcover editions), ultimately replacing an inefficient platform (similar to how Walmart defeated the local grocer in the mid-west). What I didn’t anticipate was the vehement backlash the article produced, mostly due to my use of a photo of a large and successful comic book store. (Which reasonably implied that I was coming after them.) After profusely apologizing, I ate my words and reader criticism.  Since then I’ve reformulated and reassessed my perspective of the “local comicbook store,” even going so far to patron one for an extended period of time. And while my initial assessment hasn’t much changed, I have encountered a variety of interesting takeaways from my time spent supporting my local comicbook store.  What prompted this you ask? I had to give up my 5 issue pull-a-month habit because of personal finances. So, why not reflect. Right?

Store community, Store feasibility:

My first impression of the store was of the admirable community that surrounded it. It reminded me of my days spent at the skate park in the town where I grew up. There we hung out in the pro shop and watched grainy footage of teens doing “sick” moves on government property, ate nachos with pennies we scavenged, and watched Wayne's World on VHS. The comicbook store was a watering hole where people gathered to talk, socialize, pass the time, play games, and (occasionally) buy things. The shop catered to a wide audience, featuring not only comic books and related accessories, but also board games, baseball cards, and painted models. All this served to attract a wide base of people, however schizophrenic in direction.  Meanwhile, another store up the street featured what seemed to be exclusively comics and board games. The latter I regarded with less suspicion.

My impression was mixed. (I am a loner I admit, which doesn’t really help me in any attempt to be a part of a community.) As someone who barely has time to read the books I buy, it’s difficult to commit in the activities of a surrogate church of pop-culture. When asked to participate, it was always an imposition. I really wanted to go, to be a bit player in the unfolding drama, but it was too much. It’s a “kids” game. (“Kid” an operative term for anyone without pressing responsibilities.  They weren’t always 13 and under.) The people that worked at the store were nice and very helpful. I enjoyed being around them and kicking around hypothetical storytelling and hero mashups. The only thing lacking was tact. A 12 issue plot twist was revealed to me as I was purchasing the comic, as if I had the ability to read a comic before even purchasing it for myself. It made me a “sad panda.” It also didn’t help knowing that the store was always on the cusp of going under.  Right off the main boulevard, I couldn’t begin to comprehend the cost of rent for the storefront. Every employee working there was on minimum wage and without benefits.  And there was no official use of inventory software, so pulls that I signed up for were lost several times and I had to wait for backorders to come in more than a few times.  A good friend of mine, older, wiser, told me stories about the local comic book store in his hometown, where the store was run by one person and had absolutely no insight into their cash flow. Also, it was an under-the-table operation. On the contrary,  that my store had multiple employees was admirable, if not impressive for an independent installation. I often wondered if my shop too was a cash operation, given how much of the inventory was used. 

The Cost of Comics:

One thing that I’ve come to love about used bookstores is the thrill of the hunt: finding a missing book in a collection for pennies on the dollar or discovering new content without the trepidation of having to dump a bunch of capital to invest. One of my biggest complaints for supporting a comic book shop was the fact that used trade paperbacks, despite being worn and handled, were charged the full MSRP. It was incredibly frustrating. I found myself constantly price checking comics against Amazon. (Before you condemn me remember that I have a right to do this as a consumer. Also I have a fucking budget.) When supporting a local comic shop is akin to supporting a charity, feeling like you are getting gouged defeats any effort in winning over possible donors. Not to mention, each of these books were traded in tremendously depreciated in value. (i.e. a $25 book is worth $5 in store credit, etc). Even selling a book for $10 yields a $5 profit. That said, anything new I purchased was typically a matter of time and availability. Do I pay $30 for something that’s $20 on Amazon? The answer to that question was typically one of the following: is this going out of print soon, should I “treat myself,” or is this worth the hassle of waiting for a strategic, non-prime Amazon purchase?  


I think that comic book shops make their dollars on browsers-turned-buyers.  Not much more to say here. I have a weakness for Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, and I would typically buy anything that my store had available that I didn’t already own. Needless to say, the comic store always beat me when I came in to buy a $3 issue and walked out with a $40 trade paperback included.

Incremental storytelling :

Lastly, and probably the most compelling reason I stopped buying was because I didn’t like reading incomplete stories. The tradition of pulp fiction is getting hooked and waiting for the next installment with baited breath. For myself, I always found I was constantly having to go back and re-read stories to find out where I was. Also it’s easier to spot filler narratives: arcs and issues deployed just to pass the time while the main event is coming. Initially, I was hooked on the Rebirth stories when they first started coming out because of the Watchmen crossover event tease. Little did I know that, almost a year and half later, I would find myself still getting breadcrumbs and nothing in the way of morsels. In the meantime the stories were OK, but not memorable. Any memorable floppies felt easily discarded because they were full of adverts as well as they weren’t easily distinguishable on a bookshelf due to their lack of spine.

(My first foray into comics were full stories captured in volumes that I marathon read. I never fully adjusted to reading floppies because there was no momentum in the narrative.)

(These are just throwaway examples, no pun-intended.)

 In sum, I feel more vindicated returning to the fold of trade paperback purchases after my experiences of sponsoring a shop. It was a really interesting, enriching experience, but at the end of the day my allegiance is to what saves me money. Why? Because life is expensive...

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